A Pilates teacher for nearly 25 years, Ruth Alpert has studied numerous other healing and movement modalities. She also has a secret life as an Appalachian flatfoot dancer.
Pilates Style: Tell us about your childhood. Ruth Alpert: I grew up on the Upper West Side of Manhattan, at 109th and 107th and Broadway. When I was in nursery school, I used to get sick a lot until I started attending Teachers College at Columbia Unive rsity’s creative movement class for preschoolers. Then I never got sick again. That’s where my dancing started.
Pilates Gentle Mat Workout Ruth Alpert Photo Gallery
I went to public school, but continued to dance. I attended Juilliard children’s program for two years, and then when I was nine, I went to the School of American Ballet for four years. I was in Gelsey Kirkland’s class. Those four years left lifelong scars and lifelong exceptional training, so I’m grateful for the experience, though I’ve had to work through a lot. It was definitely Old World survival of the fittest.
After that, I continued to take dance from other Russian teachers, most of whom were Ballet Russe veterans.
Ironically, one of the places I took classes was in a building on the same block as Joe’s studio, on Eighth Avenue at 56th Street. If only
I had known about Pilates then, I would have avoided so much pain and trauma!
PS: You went to Bard College in Annandale-on-Hudson, NY?
Ruth: Yes, I was a dance major. My mentors there were Aileen Passloff and Albert Reid, so it was a hotbed of Merce Cunningham and Judson Church influences.
PS: Where did you go after Bard? Ruth: I went to graduate school at the California Institute of the Arts for dance. The highlight was studying with Mia Slavenska, a Ballet Russe de Monte Carlo veteran. She was a phenomenal teacher, but at the end of that first year, her assistant took my left leg, which was in front of me in a developpe, and kept lifting it until something in my hip snapped.
I had to stop dancing for nine months, and came back to New York instead of finishing my degree at CalArts. There wasn’t much you could do in those days except rest—it was 1974, way before I knew about holistic treatments. Opposite page photo courtesy of pilates anytime; dancing photo by george ancona; teaching photo courtesy of ruth alpert; trager photo by richard salaş.
PS: After you had healed, did you dance professionally?
Ruth: Yes, I started dancing again about nine months later. My hip injury had more or less healed, but I was always in pain and that threw my whole body out of alignment. I began dancing with douglas dunn and Company. Meanwhile, my day job was secretarial office work; I’d go to my job, then to class, then rehearsal.
PS: I know you’ve studied a lot of alternative healing and movement modalities. How did you get interested in them? Ruth: for years, my hip injury just wouldn’t give up, which is how I ended up going to Susan Klein’s studio. Susan had trained with Irmgard Bartenieff, the founder of the laban Institute and a dance therapy pioneer. Susan was a major influence on my life. It was there that I first learned anatomy, first learned to move from my bones, first learned to listen to my body. I taught at her studio in New York, and was the first person she certified to teach her work outside of New York.
Around the same time, I also studied Body-Mind Centering, the work of Bonnie Bainbridge Cohen. from that, I learned the concept of initiating movement from various body systems (arching from the heart or lungs, plies from the ovaries, etc.).
PS: You also studied Emilie Conrad’s Continuum?
Ruth: Yes, Continuum was hugely influential on me. It altered my worldview and increased my sensitivity to internal movement. It’s the one modality that I refused to teach—I needed a place to be a student and have the focus entirely for me.
PS: How did you end up moving out of New York?
Ruth: In 1980, I got very sick, and in fact, had a complete physical breakdown and knew I had to get out of New York. I ended up moving to Austin, where I did secretarial work and taught Klein Technique™ and Experiential Anatomy. I also worked with deborah hay, a choreographer who had been a founding member of the experimental Judson (Church) dance Theater.
PS: And how did you end up in Santa Fe?
Ruth: I was still having undiagnosed health issues and felt I needed to get into a drier environment, so in 1989, I moved to New Mexico.
I first lived in Albuquerque. Suzanne Gutterson, a Pilates teacher in town who had trained with [Pilates Elder] Eve Gentry, came to my Klein Technique class. She wanted to retire and approached me about learning Pilates so I could take over her studio. for various reasons, I declined her offer.
Suzanne is 90 now, and the joke of it is that even now, 25 years later, Suzanne still hasn’t retired!
PS: When did you first actually try Pilates? Ruth: After a couple of
years in Albuquerque, I moved to Santa fe. Students in my Klein class started telling me, oh, this is just like Pilates. I’d never heard of Pilates, but I knew Susan’s work was very unique and that it wasn’t the same as whatever this thing called Pilates was.
I took a Pilates class at the Institute for the Pilates Method, which had been founded by Michele larsson and Joan Breibart, with the support of Eve Gentry. I wanted to find out what it was so I could tell people how Klein Technique was different.
PS: What was your first impression?
Ruth: I hated it! I had done Susan Klein’s work, I had been certified in the Trager Approach in Austin and had delved into Continuum, which all involved very deep movement work in the nervous system. Pilates was going back to the muscles, which seemed very superficial to me.
PS: So even though you hated your first session, you obviously went back. How did that happen?
Ruth: Michele’s background was similar to mine—she had studied with lulu Sweigard at Juilliard, and I learned that work from lulu’s students. Michele saw that I already had the necessary teaching experience and training, and could learn the repertoire. In my life, when something crosses my radar three times, I’ve learned to pay attention. So I thought, Okay, this is what I’m supposed to do.
I did an apprenticeship with Michele for about a year. Slowly, over time, I came to appreciate the work and realized it was exactly what I needed.
PS: What did it give you that all the other disciplines didn’t?
Ruth: I was becoming overly fluid, a puddle. Eve Gentry’s approach to Pilates, as taught by Michele, balanced my body. It was a more bone- focused approach, so I could handle the addition of muscular energy without getting blown out. Also, it got me to be bossy. Growing up, I had a bossy older sister, so I always refused to be bossy or commanding. Pilates really activated that take-charge, be-strong part of my personality. It became my bread and butter income.
I did an apprenticeship with Michele for about a year. Slowly, over time, I came to appreciate the work and realized it was exactly what I needed.
PS: When did you first start teaching Pilates?
Ruth: In 1992. After Michele trained me, I began teaching, alongside Celia hulton and others who were then at the studio.
PS: What happened after Michele and Joan dissolved their partnership?
Ruth: five of us, including Celia, started a studio called Momentum in 1996. When that closed in 2001, Celia and I, along with a physical therapist who had trained through Core dynamics, created a studio for a Rolfer called Active Recovery. We specialized in people recuperating from car accidents. I worked there for five years.
PS: How did you get involved in Pilates teacher training?
Ruth: Cel ia and I started out assisting Michele with her training program, Core dynamics, which is now owned by Kevin Bowen. Eventually we became a bigger part of Michele’s training program.
PS: How did you end up becoming certified in the Method?
Ruth: Celia had become a master Gyrotonic trainer. One day, she put her hands on her hips and said, “When are you going to do the Gyrotonic training?” In order to stay close to Celia, I had to enter her world. Then of course, it turned out it was exactly what my body needed—it increased the range of motion in my whole spine and opened up my rib cage and thoracic spine in particular. It also has helped illuminate certain Pilates exercises.
PS: And because one can never have too many certifications, you’re also an Alexander Technique teacher?
Ruth: Yes! I got hoodwinked into the Alexander Technique teacher training in 2003. Robyn Avalon, whom I knew from the dance community, was starting her own branch of the Alexander Alliance. She kept making me offers I couldn’t refuse. It gave me wonderful teaching skills for helping people change their unconscious patterns and ended up truly revolutionizing my Pilates teaching.
The only thing I ever actually chose to study was the Trager Approach, a movement re-education modality that I learned mainly for pragmatic reasons: to get out of the secretarial pool. Everything else chose me.
PS: Why did you leave Santa Fe?
Ruth: Michele was closing down the part of her teacher-training program, Core dynamics, in which I was involved. Other parts of my life in Santa fe were also ending and it became very clear to me that my time there was over. This page photo courtesy of pilates anytime; opposite page photo courtesy of ruth alpert
Pilates really activated that take
CHARGE, BE-STRONG PART OF MY PERSONALITY
PS: So how did you end up in Santa Barbara?
Ruth: I originally moved to los Angeles in 2009, but then I met two singer/songwriters who asked me to join their all-women string band, The honeysuckle Possums. They were based in Santa Barbara, so I moved here in 2010.
I was a ballet-trained, avant-garde dancer from New York City, but I’ve always had this alter ego as an Appalachian flatfooter since I was a teenager. When I was 15, I attended a cultural summer program in the Appalachian Mountains. I met a girl there who was a banjo player from New Jersey. When I was 17, we stayed at a commune with friends in southern West Virginia. We went to a local music festival, and that’s where I first saw flatfoot dancing and clogging and heard old¬time music [a genre of American folk music]. flatfooting is a mix of the dance of the Scotch- Irish settlers, who interfaced with African and Native American culture. It got into my guts and never let go. In 2013 and 2014, I won the National Championship in Senior Buck dancing at the Uncle dave Macon days festival in Murfreesboro, TN.
Throughout my adult life, I’ve picked the places I lived partly based on the quality of the old-time music community, places where I could flatfoot. It’s what makes me happy—it’s my social world outside of Pilates and healing.
PS: Do you still teach Pilates?
Ruth: Yes, I freelance, teaching at several local studios, and I do sessions in The Trager Approach. While the Alexander Technique is incorporated into much of my teaching, I still do individual lessons in that as well.
I am still affiliated with Core dynamics, and I also do weekend workshops on my own. for many years, I did one called Muscle and Bone, An Experiential Approach to the Anatomy of our Core Structures, applying Experiential Anatomy formats to Pilates technique. These workshops have a specific focus, such as psoas, spine, diaphragm or shoulders.
In the last couple years, I’ve done one called Introduction to The Alexander Technique for Pilates Teachers. My newest workshop is called Tactile Cueing, bringing conscious awareness to how we use our hands with clients.
On Pilates Anytime, I have two workshops, two mat classes, a Cadillac workout and three tutorials. PS
FAVORITE APPARATUS: I like them all and will use them all over the course of a few months. When my energy is high, I like the Chair. When I’m brain-dead, I do the Reformer, as I know the order by heart. I gravitate toward the Cadillac when I feel I need to find ease.
FAVORITE MAT MOVE: The Push-Up. Because by then I’m fully connected, and I love how the back line of my legs and feet feel pulling me back.
WHO INSPIRES YOU AS A TEACHER
Michele larsson. In fact, I’ve never studied with anyone else except for a few people Michele occasionally brought in for weekend workshops— deborah lessen and dianne Miller, among others. Michele is the only teacher whom I didn’t need to leave to come into my own teaching. She is very special so that I was able to evolve as a teacher without competing.
FAVORITE BRAND OF CLOTHING FOR PILATES
Whatever I find at Marshall’s! It has to be loose and mostly cotton, though.
FAVORITE MOMENT AS A TEACHER: I was doing a PMA workshop that was about our habitual holding patterns. I went over to Tracy Maurstad, who had a lot of tension in her upper body, put my hands on her ribs and said, “You know how ribs are lower in front and higher in back?” She said yes. “Then let them be higher in back!” as my hands showed her the way. It was such an aha moment for her that she burst into tears. This can happen sometimes—our nervous system has a paradigm shift and the release comes out as spontaneous tears.
Cooking for the holidays is a labor of love. While the emphasis is on the “love,” it’s the “labor” part that can take a toll on the body. I start my holiday cooking at least three days ahead by stockpiling my ingredients. I order from local organic farms so the groceries are left in boxes by the door for me to pick up, sort through and put away. The next day, I work on the dishes that can be made ahead of time, so I’m typically chopping and stirring all day. Then, I lift my big enamel iron pots from stove to oven to fridge and back again. The last day, I search for the perfect place settings, and continue to bend, stretch, chop and stir. Without my Pilates work, I know I’d feel the ache from head to toe, with the biggest pain in my feet and my shoulders. To keep me feeling good—so I can enjoy the meal with friends and family—I always take some “me time” for my Pilates practice.
The following exercises draw on the threefold effectiveness of Pilates. First, they improve alignment and movement patterns to help the body function in a more efficient and correct way. This prevents aches and pains, and keeps you healthy and feeling good throughout your work. Second, they strengthen the muscles necessary for the task at hand so you don’t reach fatigue that can lead to soreness or compensation. Last, when we simply must do what needs to get done, they help to relieve the resulting pain by lengthening or releasing the muscles and fascia and realigning the body.
This series can be done a few times a week—do 10 reps of each exercise, breathing deeply from the diaphragm throughout—leading up to the big holiday cook-a-thon, and stick with them afterward for continued relief.
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